Directed by Jang Hun
Written by Park Sang-yeon
South Korea, 2011
Regardless of country, whenever award season comes around the safest bet in the mad guessing game of who will win or at least find themselves on the nomination ballot is to choose the war film. Such historical dramas have always garnered the most lavish praise by critics and been the recipients of attractive statues on many on occasion. Winner of the Best Film award at the 2011 Grand Bell ceremony, which highlights the best South Korean cinema has to offer, Jang Hun’s The Front Line also almost made it onto the final 5-movie ballot for the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Oscars. It takes a hard edged look at the emotionally and psychologically testing journey of soldiers during the infamous Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953.
The Front Line plot principally concerns itself with the final weeks and days of the Korean War, with each side investing heavy focus on the strategically situation Aerok Hill, which has continuously changed hands between the north and the south. Some time ago during one of the ongoing back and forth battles, two good friends from the south, Soo-hyeok (Go Soon) and Eun-pyo (Shin Ha-Kyun), were separated, Soo-hyeok having been kidnapped by a northern platoon. Now, in the dying days of the war, Eun-pyo, who has risen in the ranks of the army, is dispatched back to Aerok Hill where the previous acting captain was mysteriously killed (which itself is a strange premise given that this is a war where tons of people perish anyways). It is believed a North Korean mole may have infiltrated the southern ranks and be the culprit of the murder. Not long after Eun-pyo arrives, he makes the shocking discovery that Soo-hyeok is not only still alive but has made his way back into the southern ranks. While murmurs of a cease fire have the soldiers on both sides dreaming of better days, Eun-pyo must dedicate himself to fighting alongside colleagues such as the older Hyo-sam (Ko Chang-seok) and the morphine addicted captain, Il-Young (Lee Je-hoon) all the while wrestling with the fact that his old friend Soo-hyeok just might be the spy he is hunting.
‘…despite embracing some overused tropes, director Jang Hun concocts a frequently thrilling motion picture’
Every movie calender year brings with it a host of war-themed pictures. It seems as though the movie going public’s thirst for such films is never quenched. The desire to constantly see more war films is perfectly fine in of itself, but that reality operates as a double-edged sword. By now, astute audiences recognizes that only so much can be done within the genre. Certainly there remain some ways of breaking new ground, or blending ideas from different genres perhaps, but overall, when it comes to the more traditionally constructed war movies the likes of Jang Hun’s The Front Line, people probably already know what they getting themselves into. Front Line‘s figurative survival therefore depends on how effectively it tells a familiar story and how effectively it develops previously explored themes. In that regard, despite embracing some overused tropes, director Jang Hun concocts a frequently thrilling motion picture which confidently brings to the fold how the insanity of war weighs down on the men and women who partake in it.
‘…Front Line therefore does a very nice job at depicting how close in reality these two sides are’
During the first portion of the story, various soldiers of the Alligator platoon into which Eun-pyo is tossed make reference to a previous event which sent shock waves in the ranks. There is even one soldier in particular who has seemingly lost his marbles over the episode. In the attempt to keep the review clean of spoilers, the details of the event shall not be spoiled, but suffice to say that when shown on screen, it absolutely comes across as horrific. It is a testament to how out of hand war can be. The pressure mounts, the threat of death surrounds everyone, panic reaches feverish heights…and regrettable actions ensure. Not only does the previous misadventure speak to the freakish mental mishaps soldiers can fall prey to, but the events still plague the Alligator men till this day. At various moments in the film certain characters will make incredibly rash decisions, some would argue behaviour which reeks of treachery. Clearly, their paste experiences shape the way they approach specific dilemmas today. Adding further weight to film’s power at depicting the lunacy of war are the indirect interactions between soldiers from both sides. Every time one side emerges victorious (temporarily), a small band will leave some goods and letters in a small box located under ground. Once the Aerok Hill changes ownership, the other side does the same. There is humanity after all, amid the unspeakable violence, yet when faced against one another on the battlefield, they never hesitate to rip their bodies with bullets and bayonets. It is rather appalling to realize that most of the people involved on the titular front line recognize the pseudo brotherhood bond which connects the two countries (which were in fact united as one until recently), only for them into engage in slaughterhouse festivals at the behest of their superiors. Front Line therefore does a very nice job at depicting how close in reality these two sides are, culturally speaking, thus making the battle sequences all the more harrowing.
This tension between the right and wrong ways to behave begins to carve a slight rift in the relationship between Eun-pyo and Soo-hyeok. The former naturally feels grateful that his friend, against all odds, is still alive, yet he cannot forgo the mission bestowed upon him, one that may idealistically be described as being for the ‘good of his country.’ Once doubts begin to germinate in his mind as to Soo-hyeok’s allegiance, their arc embarks on an interesting journey as well. Both actors imbue their roles with a lot of character and nuance, with Shin Ha-kyun in particular lending his Eun-pyo the right balance of emotions which denote the taxing experiencing. Caught between loyalty to his country and loyalty to his friend, Shin Ha-kyun is faced with challenges many viewers will instantly recognize since they have been explored before in many other movies, but the actor rises to the occasion to ensure that most of the ‘big moments’ are earned.
Those who argue that The Front Line‘s script lacks originality are not far off in that assessment. Nevertheless, the film is an example of working with familiar mechanics in satisfying manner. The acting is top notch, the action scenes provide for some excellent cinematography, and the idea of war ludicrousness is effectively explored. More provocative war films exist out there, waiting to be explored, but The Front Line can still hold its head high.